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Volatility’s Impact on Option Prices

Last week, the market (SPY) fell 1%, the second down week in a row.  Our 10K Bear portfolio gained 17.8%, after commissions.  Over the past two weeks SPY has fallen by 3.4% while this bearish portfolio has gained a whopping 42.6%, proving once again that it is an excellent hedge against other investments when the market is weaker.  Do you have this kind of protection in your investment accounts?

Today I would like to talk a little about an important measure in the options world – volatility, and how it affects how much you pay for an option (either put or call).

Volatility’s Impact on Option Prices

Volatility is the sole variable that can only be measured after the option prices are known.  All the other variables have precise mathematical measurements, but volatility has an essentially emotional component that defies easy understanding.  If option trading were a poker game, volatility would be the wild card.

Volatility is the most exciting measure of stock options.  Quite simply, option volatility means how much you expect the stock to vary in price. The term “volatility” is a little confusing because it may refer to historical volatility (how much the company stock actually fluctuated in the past) or implied volatility (how much the market expects the stock will fluctuate in the future).

When an options trader says “IBM’s at 20%” he is referring to the implied volatility of the front-month at-the-money puts and calls.  Some people use the term “projected volatility” rather than “implied volatility.”  They mean the same thing.

A staid old stock like Procter & Gamble would not be expected to vary in price much over the course of a year, and its options would carry a low volatility number.  For P & G, this number currently is 17%.  That is how much the market expects the stock might vary in price, either up or down, over the course of a year.

Here are some volatility numbers for other popular companies:

IBM  – 20%
Apple Computer – 31%
GE – 26%
Johnson and Johnson – 16%
Goldman Sachs – 37%
Amazon – 37%

You can see that the degree of stability of the company is reflected in its volatility number.  IBM has been around forever and is a large company that is not expected to fluctuate in price very much, while Apple Computer has exciting new products that might be great successes (or flops) which cause might wide swings in the stock price as news reports or rumors are circulated. 

Volatility numbers are typically much lower for Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) than for individual stocks.  Since ETFs are made up of many companies, good (or bad) news about a single company will usually not significantly affect the entire batch of companies in the index.  An ETF such as OIH which is influenced by changes in the price of oil would logically carry a higher volatility number.

Here are some volatility numbers for the options of some popular ETFs: 

Dow Jones Industrial (Tracking Stock – DIA) – 19%
S&P 500 (Tracking Stock – SPY) –21%
Nasdaq (Tracking Stock – QQQ) – 20%
Russell 2000 (Small Cap – IWM) – 27%
Oil Services ETF (OIH) – 32%

Since all the input variables that determine an option price in the Black-Scholes model (strike price, stock price, time to expiration, interest and dividend rates) can be measured precisely, only volatility is the wild card.   It is the most important variable of all.

If implied volatility is high, the option prices are high.  If expectations of fluctuation in the company stock are low, implied volatility and option prices are low. 

Of course, since only historical volatility can be measured with certainty, and no one knows for sure what the stock will do in the future, implied volatility is where all the fun starts and ends in the option trading game.

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